Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Evolution, Part 3

The idea of building value for the handler and blending work and play without constant reliance on food or toys has been a huge part of my on-going training evolution. These were concepts I’d rarely bothered with before Phoenix. Jess, Connor and Jamie ate cookies and worked happily - who need anything else? They say you may not get the dog you want but you WILL get the dog you need. When I got Phoenix, I got a whole lot more than a wonderful dog. I got a wonderful teacher.

After finishing 2 OTChs. that were basically trained with cookies, I hit the wall with Phoenix. He liked cookies well enough. He like obedience well enough, too, but when the cookies disappeared, so did any genuine enthusiasm for the project. I was baffled. How could I make an intrinsically un-rewarding activity fun for my dog?

While the “Make it fun” approach was nothing new — we’d given it lip service for the last 30 years — the emphasis (at least for  me) was starting to shift toward dogs doing obedience work not because they were forced or bribed to, but because they truly enjoyed doing this stuff with their owners. Maybe this had been going  on for a long time and I just finally noticed. (Truthfully, Connor gave me this on a silver platter and I did not recognize it.) The interaction was rewarding. Now dogs worked for the engagement with their owner - not relying on external rewards or the threat of punishment. There were tangible rewards but the reward was no longer the focus of the training experience.

Food was still in the picture but the way trainers used it changed - the dog no longer received it for sitting there like a bump on a log. Food became active. The dog could chase you to get his food or leap up for it or race to grab it off a target. Food suddenly had energy. Fun became FUN! So different from my former teaching to deliver the food directly to the dog’s passive mouth!

Food use aside, I started to explore the concept of letting my dog make the choice to engage with me. Build the relationship and then work the performance skills from a base of voluntary participation, not force or bribery. From day one, I’d been taught that the first step in training was to “get your dog’s attention.” That approach clearly presumed the dog was not paying attention in the first place and you were required to “make” the dog look at you. Even before training started, compulsion or bribery were in play.

In all my years of training, it had never once occurred to me that I could let my dog call the shots, so to speak, and decide whether or not he would be a willing, happy participant in my games. If yes, we would train/play. If no, the session would end without me bribing or forcing, which in all honesty were the two routes I’d been taught to follow - pop the collar or wave the cookie.

There was a great deal of mental agony when I realized that left to his own devices, Phoenix would happily ignore me in the context of training unless I initiated the contact (force or bribery). We would go to the building, snap on a leash, go out on the floor and he would sniff, pull, turn his back to me, watch other dogs, etc.

Ack. No wonder our obedience work was such a mess. What I had mis-interpreted as stress in the ring was a casual indifference for an activity he did not find terribly rewarding unless I was offering cookies and toys. I had to do all the work. He loved me but that did not automatically translate to a love of heeling and fetching.

Slowly, this is changing. I am learning more about play. Through play, I naturally become more interesting to my dog. I have stopped doing all the work for him. I am learning to be patient (always thought I was a patient person before - not so much). I am learning to let him make decisions. I am learning to let him drive the bus.

Now I snap on a leash and go out on the floor and he’s giving me eye contact, bouncing, pushing to work, pushing to play with me. He’s bright and engaged and working. What a bossy, annoying, wonderful dog! He occasionally drives the bus right over a cliff but I will never fault anything that is done with enthusiasm. So much better than our previous sulky, “I’ll do it if I have to” attitude.

We’re not perfect. We still have weak spots. Some days our engagement is shaky at best. But my approach to training is no longer about dominating another species and making it submit to my wants and wishes. I’m learning to work with my dog, not just inflict my will on him and make him do things with no regard to how he feels about it.

Perhaps the biggest gift Phoenix has given me is the ability to question the status quo. But that’s another post.

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